Interview: Roman Coppola on Film, Books, & Libraries
Image courtesy of Roman Coppola
Roman Coppola grew up in a filmmaking family and surrounded by the arts. In one capacity or another—actor, writer, director, producer— he has worked in film and video since childhood and has built a varied and successful career, often in collaboration with family and friends. His latest film project, The French Dispatch, which he helped develop the story for with Wes Anderson, Jason Schwartzman, and Hugo Guinness premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in July and was released in the U.S. this October.
In addition to speaking about his craft and the ideas and inspirations that fuel his work with his production company, The Director's Bureau, Coppola spoke with NYPL about books and authors that have been influential to him, memories of libraries, and the importance of following your curiosities.
NYPL: First of all, thank you for taking the time from your multifaceted, Renaissance man lifestyle to talk with us. It’s always fun to interview members of the artistic community, especially those whose work intersects with the New York Public Library as well as the performing arts world in general.
RC: Thank you for including me. I’m flattered to be doing something with the Library. I have a special affection for libraries in general and the New York Public Library is iconic and incredible.
NYPL: What is your favorite part of your work: the research, script development, shooting, editing process, working with the cast, picking the score?
RC: This is a tricky question. Of course, when you’re in any given moment, you sort of love it and hate it at the same time, in that you just want to get through it to the next phase and then you look back and you recall how much you enjoyed that phase you just passed through. There is something especially pleasurable about that early gestation—that first moment that you’re considering a project. You’re free-associating. You’re doing research or finding things that relate and there’s just all this potential. So, that early phase of writing, kind of even before you’re writing but just reflecting on an idea is really fun. It does relate to the library in general in that you’re populating your imagination with research and things, and I find that when there is a project that I’m involved with in that early phase, that anything I might come across—whether it’s a movie or a book or an experience—if you’re really in that moment of early creation, everything becomes relevant. Even things that are irrelevant to your project. For example if I’m thinking of a movie idea and I see a film and I see a sequence that has some particular shot or some particular idea, I'll think to myself, “Wow, I could use a shot like that in the thing I'm doing," or "Wow, I could have a character that resembles this character in that way.” Or if you see a movie that doesn’t relate at all, you think to yourself “Ah, well, this is really good because my movie will not at all be like this one and I will never have a character like that or a situation like that.” So, when you’re in that early bloom of daydreaming about an idea, input whether it's something you read or that you watch, you filter through the project at hand and it becomes an aid.
NYPL: Do you have any weird quirks that help you when you are stuck in a screenwriting session or having trouble creating fluidity during the editing process?
RC: Yes, often I will work with a collaborator—whether it’s my cousin, Jason [Schwartzman] or my good friend, Wes Anderson and sometimes what we’ll do is say, "Okay, what’s the terrible Hollywood version?" Say, we’re stuck on a scene and we’re trying to think of what happens next... so, we’ll say, "Okay, what’s the worst, you know the most cheesy, stupid version?" Sometimes that really frees up your imagination and you’ll say, “Okay, that’s the worst idea ever but maybe, this could happen...” And you’ll say, “wait, that’s pretty good. Let’s follow that.” So, I think it’s really just a little trick where you allow yourself the freedom to not be precious and sometimes in a kind of corny, obvious or kind of typical idea, you can flip it on its head and find something that makes it more relevant to what you are doing. So, that’s a little trick—to ask “what’s the bad version” of what you are trying to find and it can lead you to the good version or sometimes the bad version is not bad at all.
NYPL: Do you have any special memories of the library or library-related anecdotes from any of your films, tv shows, or commercials?
RC: Like many people, I love the library: the stacks of books, the smell, the fact that it’s quiet and I have a very vivid recollection of going to my local library down in the Marina District. Taking the bus down as a kid, maybe being eight, nine, or ten years old, and discovering this section of magic and ventriloquism and this type of thing and I remember checking out this book, Ventriloquism for Fun and Profit by Paul Winchell. I kept checking it out and checking it out again. It kind of became my book, because I kept re-checking it out. It’s very vivid in my mind’s eye. I can remember it was on a low shelf, to the right on a certain stack.
It’s intoxicating—this array of books and all the possibility and all the things to discover.
I belong to a library in San Francisco called the Mechanic’s Institute, which was founded a long time ago and has a wonderful ambience. So, yes, I am a fan of libraries in general and for my work. Although I can’t say in recent times since we’ve all been pent up, that I haven’t been able to go out to a public library. It is a setting that is very wonderful.
I remember working on a project and I was driving across country with a friend and we were working on a writing project together and we would stop at the public libraries along the way and there’d be a quiet room. There’d be a place to set up. It’s such a wonderful asset, the library system, and we have to thank Ben Franklin for that.
NYPL: What are your favorite books?
RC: Well, there are different episodes of different favorite writers and books. The first book I really read on my own and really was absorbed in and read the sequel to was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Roald Dahl, (James and the Giant Peach) I think as a writer—and the tone that he had and those books that he created— are particularly something that comes to mind. I still remember I had a children’s book that was given to me by my grandmother called Miss Suzy, which is about a squirrel who has a tidy little house and gets kicked out by a bunch of thug squirrels. Anyway, that’s more of a children’s book.
In more mature times, I remember meeting socially Richard Brautigan in San Francisco. He was a San Francisco poet and writer and I remember meeting him just as a kid. I didn’t know any of his writing, but he was very kind to me and he had a warmth and charisma and he gave to me a little slip of paper that had his signature and he said “This will be worth something someday.” It was a little autograph and I remember thinking, “Wow, this is great, I got something valuable.” And I put that in my little treasure box—and I lament that I can’t find that but—I remember just feeling a relationship to this man, who was kind and very tall and had that charisma. Later, I picked up his books... specifically The Hawkline Monster, In Watermelon Sugar, Trout Fishing in America, Willard and his Bowling Trophies...all the books. He wrote many books like Dreaming of Babylon.
I became very drawn to his style and his books. I think because I had met him, I had a special relationship, but then also because I love the writing. One of the reasons is that the books are generally short and he would work in these chapters and episodes that are little poems. It’s kind of cinematic the way that the books are often composed of these scenes. In my writing, for some personal screenplays, I’ve kind of emulated a bit of his style, where I’ll put a title to the scene and describe some of the essence of it, then sketch it out again in a Brautigan way, which gets to the core of it. That was someone who influenced me and with whom I had a relationship as an individual and then loved his books. He’s certainly quite known, but it’s fun when you meet a person who’s not acquainted and you can share a book that’s so unique.
NYPL: Is there an author or book who influenced you during your formative years?
RC: I would say that would be the write J.D. Salinger with Nine Stories and The Catcher in the Rye, but particularly in Nine Stories. I am a huge fan of "The Laughing Man," which is one of my favorite pieces of writing. You know the way he writes in such an intimate way that the reader just feels like a kinship—there's some kind of magic that he's able to convey—that sort of closeness you feel to the author. "The Laughing Man" I love in particular because it blends fantasy and memory and reality, and it’s touching and fun. There’s a line in there that's something to the effect that the Laughing Man would cross between the Shanghai/Paris border in his adventures. I thought that kind of child-like impossibility taken for fact is something I really admire and I love that story.
NYPL: What are you reading right now?
RC: I tend to read more nonfiction. I am actually on a kick to try to learn Italian. So I’m reading a lot of Italian verb conjugation books and that’s maybe not what you expected. Recently, I read a book called The Swerve which discusses the humanities and certain writings that have been lost and libraries of times past...specifically, Lucretius and the thinking and writings of Epicurus.
It was very stimulating and led me on a bid of curiosity to learn more about the humanities. There is an area I want to inquire more about which is more classical writing and classic literature. Also, for a point of contrast...rather than talking about The Catcher in the Rye and things that are so known, the last book—it's been two or three years—that doubled me up with so much laughter, I couldn’t breathe (literally) from laughing so hard is this totally absurd, ridiculous book, which is called The Stench of Honolulu by Jack Handey. It is just the most absurd, ridiculous thing that makes me smile just thinking about it.
NYPL: People don’t realize how much reading books and scripts and watching films are involved in the creativity process behind filmmaking. How much of your time is spent finding inspiration and developing ideas through screenings or reading?
RC: I don’t really track it. I’m just a curious person, so I’m always wanting to see things that are stimulating or read things or come across things or have interesting conversations. Certainly, the act of making things is just fueled by things that you consume and inspire you. Sometimes I’ll do a talk at a film festival or film school and young, aspiring filmmakers will ask "What’s your advice?" or " What’s the direction to take to have a life in this creative world?" It may be a generic thing to say, but I say to become cultured, and to develop your taste and fill the well of your mind with ideas and works that you can draw on. So being curious and seeking out things that inspire you—it’s an obvious thing to say, but it is a good path.
An offshoot of that is, people ask, "What is a good characteristic to have to be a filmmaker?" My response is having good taste. Because if you have good taste and you develop that, if you have good taste in literature or in music, you can draw upon that. Someone who has good taste to select good material, to select good actors, to find suited locations, to have a good sense of photography, etc. So, not just to know how to do it, but to be discerning with good taste is a great tool to have and I think that can be developed at the library through research and study and following your curiosity.
NYPL: If you could choose any author to have lunch with, living or dead, who would it be and where?
RC: I would be most curious to have lunch with Marcel Proust just because he’s so iconic. I’ve not read the entirety of his novel, but I did read Swann’s Way and it was incredibly impressive and the nuance of his memories and the way he describes things is so remarkable. He’s such a peculiar person or has that reputation for being so peculiar. So to have a chance to have a lunch at Lapérouse or to visit his bedroom and to see that picture would be incredible.
NYPL: Like many auteurs, you seem to steadily work with a usual team, many of whom happen to be family members. Does that ever get weird? Do you have any funny memories of being on the set for too long or so many takes that everyone gets a bit silly? Is there something that one of you always starts doing when they get too tired and you can tell when that is starting?
RC: Yes, it’s hard for me to recall a specific anecdote. I do enjoy working with people in my family—my sister, my cousin, good friends and the nature of a film crew is very much a family. As a kid growing up in the world of filmmaking a lot of the people on the team—the art directors, the photographers—were like aunts and uncles and all the different kids were like cousins. So there is a family thing to which I can definitely relate.
I can also recall that feeling of familiarity to the point of exhaustion where you get a little delirious. Certainly with writing, my cousin Jason and I did a bunch of writing, producing, and directing forMozart in the Jungle (our television show) and we had some crazy deadlines where we had to generate scripts overnight and rewrite things and to adapt. That definitely brought about some delirium of staying up till the crack of dawn to write something that was going to be produced and shot the next day. That comes to mind...where we had a lot of fun and it was totally exhausting and you just wanted to get through it, but looking back that brings some great memories.
On a set, generally there’s a kind of almost militaristic strictness. People are rolling and shooting and quiet on the set. It can be playful certainly, but generally when you are on the set, there’s a whole team of people to get things done and it’s a little less delirious but it can be at times especially if you are working long hours.
NYPL: Do you have a favorite library?
RC: I’ve been living in Napa over COVID and we have a very remarkable library that is the RKO research library from the film studio RKO and we folded in some MGM acquisitions and Warner Brothers. We have this wonderful and pretty complete research library right here in Napa. I have an office in that space and I’ll peruse the files. There are a lot of image files and production books from old productions. So that is sort of my favorite library due to my proximity and how kind of rare and unusual it is, in that it is a cinema-based research library, which all the studios used to have and they’ve dispensed with them. Now, luckily, my father and George Lucas are the two major holders of the classic movie library collections.
The Mechanics Institute of San Francisco is a favorite library. The New York Public Library, which is so iconic, and my local library in the Marina District of San Francisco, for reasons of going there when I was a kid.
There is also a private members Library on the Upper East Side of Manhattan founded by Lorenzo Da Ponte. I read the biography of Da Ponte who was a very interesting raconteur. For those interested in libraries and, especially, Italian culture, he is someone to know about since he founded the core collection of this particular library in New York. He led a remarkable life. He was a contemporary of Casanova. He did the libretti for Mozart and he was a book dealer and a language scholar, who was in America in those early days and led a kind of insane life of adventure. So, that’s a little library lore for those interested to learn about him and the library he founded. So I went to that library to pay tribute to the fact that he founded it and when I went I talked to the clerk there and said, “Wow, this is the library founded by Lorenzo Da Ponte,” and they didn’t know who that was...but maybe they’ll read this and become acquainted.
NYPL: Many people know that you are part of a family of filmmakers, but not everyone knows that you also have ties to the world of classical music. You are also related to the conductor Anton Coppola and the composer Carmine Coppola. Did opera or classical music play a part in your development growing up?
RC: It did. I can remember Sunday mornings there was the sound of opera blaring: Madame Butterfly, La Bohème. So, I think of the sounds of the espresso machine grinding beans and opera blaring through some classic JBL speakers as a kid, when my dad was home, and we had a sort of a lazy Sunday. So music is definitely a part of my life. My uncle, Anton Coppola, was very iconic in our family. He lived to be 102. He was composing and conducting right up until the end. There was a lot of discussion of music and we’d have what was called a "musicale," which is a little musical lecture at times, where he’d play themes and we’d share that. So, definitely we had an appreciation for classical music in our family. When Jason and I did Mozart in the Jungle, it was an occasion to learn more about it and inquire. I’m not an expert by any means but definitely have an appreciation for it.
Anton Coppola Conducts Puccini/Angela Gheorghiu. Listen with your library card via Naxos Music Library.
NYPL: Although the dramatized onscreen lifestyle could be a lot riskier than most classically trained musicians' daily lives...one can’t help but wonder, were there any characters in Mozart in the Jungle based on people you know or knew growing up and could you share any stories about them?
RC: There weren’t so many stories based on people I know, personally. We heard a lot of lore and I think when you start getting in the mix of the world of musicians, they start spilling the beans and telling stories and you hear about things and you read about things. I can’t say I had such a personal experience or memories or stories that we used, but we certainly became acquainted with all the people on our team and the world of musicians and used all the stories, not to mention the source material, which is Blair Tindall’s book and all those anecdotes. So, to be honest, less from my own personal life, but more from people we met during that production.
NYPL: Who is your favorite character out of any of your films that you would like to hang out with in real life? Drinking with Charles Swan or a night of dancing with Dragonfly?
RC: You know, both of those sound great. I would love to meet up with Dragonfly on her spaceship and have a little Curacao cocktail. Just thinking about it is very pleasant. It’s true that Charles Swan is a character who I’m so close to that it’s hard to imagine it as another person. It’s kind of a reflection of me and Charlie Sheen and other people I’ve known but, yeah, to go to the bar at Musso and Frank and order a Brandy Alexander with Charles Swan would be quite a blast. So, both of those I would say yes to, for sure!
NYPL: What do you think has helped you be able to shift (to the outside eye) so seamlessly between commercial work, film, and the occasional tv series? Do you use the same approach, or what do you take into consideration when starting a project?
RC: You know I basically just follow my intuition and my curiosity. I’m not very conscious about these things. It’s just sort of things come my way and generally, if I haven’t done it, I’ll tend to say yes. So if I haven’t done a television serialized show—"oh, I’d like to try that." Or if I haven’t done a commercial, I’d like to try that or a video. Over the years, I’ve become acquainted with different forms: short form, long form, cinema, and different things. I think, it’s just sort of my nature, being curious, and enjoying getting swept up into the worlds that are intriguing to me and certainly working with Wes [Anderson] or Jason [Schwartzman]. These friendships and these adventures we have together, whether it’s going to India to work on Darjeeling, or digging deep into the world of classical music with Jason, I’m just interested in satisfying my curiosity and being exposed to things and following my intuition.
My main tool in my work is my intuition. When I have a problem with writing or trying to figure something out of who should I cast or what should I do, I just kind of close my eyes and I'll say, "Well, what does your intuition tell you? Who’s the right person for this? What’s the right tone or the right type of idea that would be correct?" And you kind of just ask yourself that and if you can get a good direct line of communication to your intuition, I think that’s a really valuable tool. One little trick that relates to this—if people are having a hard time visualizing—sometimes, there are people in your life that can be that sort of help to help you resonate and get in line with your intuition. My sister, Sofia and I are very close and I’ll have an idea for a film and I’ll start to describe it and the way I describe it to her will frame kind of what I want to do. There’s a tendency when you describe it to someone you trust and that you know is not trying to influence what you are doing , but is just wishing for you to do what you want to do, truly. To get advice from someone who’s trying to influence you can be tricky. But when you’re trying to get advice from someone who’s really hoping that you’ll find what you’re looking for—that’s a great thing to find in your life. But it’s the same kind of little trick, of like if you say, "Well, should I do this?," and you say, "Well, I’m going to flip a coin and before looking at it—the coin—you say, well, which do you hope it is 'heads or tails'"? It’s the same kind of thing that sometimes questions and paths and what to do next can be guided by this intuitive sense. You have to (I believe, for me at least), you have to get in touch with that intuitive sense so you can have a good direct conversation with it.
NYPL: You have now worn most of the hats involved in the film industry from child actor to under the line jobs, director, screenwriter, producer, and even impresario with The Directors Bureau. Yet, you seem to have found a way to live just within range of the spotlight without getting burned. Is there a secret to maintaining your "not quite under the radar" but "never too exposed" existence in the industry? Do you think that has developed from growing up in a household with a history in the performing arts? Or is it a skill you developed on your own?
RC: Well, that’s a flattering question. You know, I never seek out the spotlight but this invitation, for example, to share some thoughts and be asked intelligent questions from the folks at the Library—that’s a nice thing to participate in and I’m not reticent to share things and chat about what I’m doing. You know, luckily I work in a field that’s not so scorching a spotlight. I’m not so much in the public eye and I tend to prefer it that way. You know, it’s nice when you have a reputation or are noted in some way. It gives a certain leverage to accomplish what you wish to do. It’s nice to have a bit of recognition, so that if I’m trying to get something made or hoping to do something it might open some doors. But I don't really think about that. I just sort of do my thing, follow my nose.
But to answer your question, I don’t really think about how to maintain being under the radar or not. I just sort of take it one day at a time and sort of see what unfolds and try to get in the mix of things that are stimulating and are worthwhile. So when you spend the day doing something, you value it and feel like it wasn’t a waste of time.
NYPL: Which is your favorite film festival?
RC: You know, I’m not a habitué of film festivals. I’ve been to different festivals over the years and each one has its attributes. The Telluride Film Festival is very iconic as one of high quality. I remember going there as a kid over the years and seeing so many stimulating movies. Cannes is so iconic in its way and the setting is so beautiful and the history is extraordinary and it’s sort of a premiere festival. The festival in Venice is very romantic. It’s such a beautiful city. I‘ve had experiences there that were really memorable with Darjeeling and when Sofia brought Lost in Translation there with lots of accolades. So I don’t have a specific favorite but I’ve had different experiences over the years at those festivals. I was greeted warmly at the Rome Festival and of course Rome is a city which I love dearly.
NYPL: What are some of your current projects?
RC: I’m working on Wes’s new film. It’s not my place to speak about it specifically. And then I continue to do my work with The Director’s Bureau and have various projects that I am gestating in various phases of completion. I recently did a video for my wife who is a musician. Her band's name is Spring Summer and we did a video together that I was quite proud of and it’s called “Oh Brother.” We did it during lockdown and it is done in an animation style which I've never worked in before.
"Oh Brother" by Spring Summer
NYPL: Thank you so much for giving us your time today. It’s been a very amusing and interesting interview. I wish you all the best with your upcoming work.